Earwitnesses and Transparent Conduits of Voice: On the Labor of Field Interpreters for UN Missions

Abstract: This essay considers the labor of field interpreters who worked for the UN during two critical missions in Nepal—the UN High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) during and after the Maoist civil war. Interpreters negotiate two different ethical stances that resonate with contrasting ethical approaches in human rights and humanitarian work. As conduits of voice, an interpreter seeks to be neutral and impartial, a non-autonomous figure of mediation within the work of human rights. Field interpreters are also earwitnesses, who bear subjective responsibility for the knowledge they convey, through their work of listening to often-traumatic testimonies. To get at the paradoxes of between being both a neutral conduit of voice and a subjective earwitness, I explore several moments that interrupt the ideology of invisible transparency within which interpreters work. Despite these constant interruptions, the ideology of transparency continues to prevail, and interpreters’ embodied labor helps preserve such ideals.

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